Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press

Why kids throw a fit when screen time is up

Whenever the kids played video games, even a little bit, they’d wind up throwing chairs or hitting each other. Every week, psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley would get a similar report from the residential treatment center that employed her: the kids played video games, they got in a fight.

“It was driving me crazy!” she said. She got the center to get rid of the video games. Incidents fell by a third within a month.

Intrigued, Dunckley started trying this digital detox with her other patients, in her clinical practice. These kids didn’t have the same history of neglect or other abuse as the kids in the treatment center. They didn’t have the same hair-trigger fight-or-flight stress responses.

But whether they were diagnosed with ADHD, sensory integration issues, autism or depression, when families put away the screens, they quickly saw improvements across the board.

One family saw their hyperactive 5-year-old’s attention span increase from 5 seconds to 20 minutes, and occasionally 60 minutes. Within two weeks.

Dunckley’s theory: Screen time is overstimulating.

“All interactive screen time stresses the central nervous system,” she told those of us in Boston for the 2018 CSTAN (Children’s Screen Time Action Network) conference.

Which, I gathered, is why kids throw a fit when it’s time to turn off the iPad.

Their stress system is aroused, a system that nature intended to be used in emergencies (like coming across a saber-toothed tiger). Physical action—fight or flight—is what signals the stress hormones to stand down. But sitting in front of a screen, there is no physical release.

On top of that, under stress, blood flow shifts from the frontal lobe to the more primitive part of brain—so that we don’t sit there thinking about whether to fight or flee. Less access to the frontal lobe means less access to emotional regulation, executive function, impulse control, empathy, and more.

So your kid is primed to fight and has less access to self-control. Now you come along! And you try to take away this thing that’s designed to be very good at activating the brain’s reward pathways.


What’s worse, though, is what excessive screen time does to the body:

  • desynchronizes body clock, as the blue light from the screen suppresses hormones for sleep
  • alters brain chemistry by raising stress hormones and suppressing serotonin, which regulates mood
  • intense sensory stimulation from modern-day bright colors and fast pace
  • drains mental reserves, especially as older kids try multitasking on multiple devices
  • desensitizes dopamine pathways, so that kids want more and more stimulation, feeling they can’t focus unless they’re on a screen

Some of these happen within 30 minutes; other effects are cumulative. At the extreme end, you have young adults who become addicted to video games and other types of interactive screen time. Dunckley said researchers thought their brain scans would show damage that looked behavioral, like gambling. Instead, brain scans show damage similar to that of alcohol and drug abuse.

Which is interesting to me. We don’t give our kids alcohol because we understand that their developing brains can’t handle it yet. If we protect them now, they’ll be in a position to handle it later. Yet right now the official guidance on screen time is a two-hour daily limit after 18 months of age.

Personally, I’m not going there.

I agree with the myth-busting Dunckley offered. Here are a few:

Myth: Computer time is better than TV time.

Truth: Interactive screen time is more dysregulating and addicting than passive screen time.

Myth: Everything in moderation.

Truth: “This one drives me crazy!” she said. “First, no one does it in moderation. Second, some kids [sensitive, anxious, autistic] can’t handle any at all.”

Myth: Computer skills are necessary for survival in today’s world.

Truth: Computer skills can be learned at any age. (And, a co-author of Screen Schooled added later during the CSTAN conference, computer-engineering programs will tell students to take philosophy classes before tech classes to first learn logic; how to think.)

Dunckley said a lot more, including how to tell if your child needs a four-week electronic fast. And, if so, how to do it. She’s helped kids as young as 3. If you need that, check out her book, “Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time.”

Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

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